There was a time as a kid when I believed I was pretty much flawless. Unsurprisingly, it turned out I had even more flaws as a kid than I do now. I just had very poor self-awareness.
In an environment with little criticism, it’s easy to forget about your flaws. But the more aware of them you are, the better position you will be in to correct them. So when you get really serious about self-improvement, being in a position to regularly receive criticism becomes a hugely valuable resource.
Other people see things about us that we ourselves can’t see. In part, this is because they tend to be less biased, but also because they watch us act from a third party perspective, which leads to different observations than occur from inside our own minds. For instance, others are more likely to notice if we do inconsiderate things, or if we have a goofy looking smile, than we are ourselves.
When I started to actively seek criticism from those who knew me well, I made many discoveries. It was incredible to me that I’d been so oblivious for such a long time about some of my undesirable behaviors, and that no one had ever mentioned them before. It became clear that most people (even those who care a lot) wouldn’t risk upsetting you or annoying you, even to tell you something that you really should hear. Fortunately, in many cases, merely becoming aware of a flaw was enough to get me to correct it.
To get honest feedback you shouldn’t ask “How would you say I’m flawed?” That may just be perceived as fishing for complements. What worked for me is making it clear that I’d gotten serious about improving myself, but that I needed help discovering more ways that I could improve further. When people realized that I truly did want to know my flaws, and that I wouldn’t get angry or defensive at what they said, the process went smoothly. Of course, it helps a lot if you really aren’t going to get angry or defensive. If you’re not at that point, hearing criticism from a friend could damage your relationship. Also, you should choose your sources of criticism wisely. Pick someone who is likely to give thoughtful comments, rather than use the opportunity as an excuse to attack you.
When you learn about a flaw for the first time, you’re probably going to wince. It hurts when you realize you’ve been doing something wrong for so long, and that people may have been judging you for it. This is one of the big reasons that so few people actually seek criticism. But if you set the goal of being a great person rather than just thinking you are great person, then criticism is less difficult to hear. It may also help to think about what an advantage it is to be the sort of person who finds flaws and then demolishes them, rather than taking the standard course of pretending they aren’t there. Flaws become opportunities the moment you learn about them, and you can improve at almost anything once you’ve figured out your weak points.
When you do receive criticism, it takes some skill to get the most out of it without feeling too bad. It’s useful to learn to dissect it into its basic types. There are three types of criticism, which often come mixed together:
- Accurate criticism. This is a criticism that is warranted, and relates to one or more of your flaws.
- Ignorant criticism. This is criticism based on a confusion or misunderstanding, and it does not actually relate to your flaws.
- Emotive criticism. This is criticism designed to express emotion or evoke emotion in the person hearing it.
To see how dissecting criticism works in practice, let’s consider a hypothetical example. Suppose that the last three times your friend called you forgot to call him back. You kept intending to do so, but then it would slip your mind. One day, you bumped into this friend on the street. He came up to you and said:
“I just have to tell you, you’ve been an asshole lately. You’re so busy with your new girlfriend that you don’t even call me back anymore. You’re going to lose friends if you keep treating people like this.”
Ouch! Let’s dissect this criticism:
‘You’ve been an asshole lately’ is an example of Emotive criticism. Your friend is simultaneously expressing his negative emotion, and trying to make you feel bad. Although this part of the criticism doesn’t actually tell you much of anything about your flaws, it shows how angry your friend is which is important to know.
The second part, “You’re so busy with your new girlfriend” is Ignorant criticism. In this case, it has nothing to do with what you’re being criticized for, and is merely your friends misperception of the situation, since your girlfriend had nothing to do with you not calling back. Though this doesn’t relate to your flaws, it presents an opportunity to correct your friend’s misunderstanding, and explain what really happened.
The last part, “You don’t even call me back anymore. You’re going to lose friends if you keep treating people like this.” is Accurate criticism. It represents a useful call to action. You need to figure out a system for reminding yourself when you need to return a call, or you might actually lose friends. It can be upsetting to think of yourself as having been flaky, but in this case it’s a fact that you have been. Now that you’re aware of it, you can do something about it.
Breaking criticism into these three parts (Accurate, Ignorant, Emotive) will streamline the process of extracting useful information.
Criticism is easier to hear when you have sought it out than when it is thrust on you. And most people won’t volunteer it, until they are quite annoyed. So don’t wait until criticism comes your way. Seek criticism from your friends, your boss, and your spouse. Even acquaintances can provide an interesting perspective. Break down this criticism into the Accurate, Ignorant, and Emotive components. Know your flaws so you can correct them. Become greater.